How 'unschooling' and 9/11 shaped Astra Taylor's thinking on democracy

Writer and political organizer Astra Taylor is this year's CBC Massey Lecturer. In conversation with IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed, the Winnipeg-born filmmaker explains how her early years in the unschooling movement shaped her worldview and how Occupy Wall Street taught her that 'thinking' and 'doing' go hand in hand.

'Who would I be to talk about democracy if I wasn't trying to democratize our society?'

Astra Taylor and her book The Age of Insecurity
2023 Massey Lecturer Astra Taylor believes 'thinking' and 'doing' are inextricably linked. She says her work to combat predatory debt has given her a new understanding of solidarity. (House of Anansi/Nye Taylor)

"I love a good epiphany. I'm an epiphany junkie," 2023 Massey Lecturer Astra Taylor told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

"As other thinkers have inspired me and tickled my brain, I love the idea of prompting epiphanies in other people."

This month, she will be sparking epiphanies across Canada as the Massey Lectures go on the road. 

In The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together As Things Fall Apart, Taylor explores how rising inequality, declining mental health, the ecological emergency, and the threat of authoritarianism originate from a social order built on insecurity. Mixing social critique, memoir, history, political analysis, and philosophy, her lectures rethink both insecurity and security from the ground up. 

Taylor is a Winnipeg-born filmmaker, writer and organizer who was active in the Occupy Movement and has been an outspoken critic of predatory practices around debt. Her books include The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age and Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss it When It's Gone.

Lecture tickets are still available in Halifax, Whitehorse, and Toronto — and for a special related panel on ecological insecurity in Vancouver.

The series will be broadcast on CBC Radio's IDEAS and will be available on CBC Listen in November.

Here are some excerpts from Astra Taylor's conversation with Nahlah Ayed on how she thinks — and of her double life as a public intellectual and a political organizer.  

On 'unschooling' and how it shaped her thinking

I always had the ability to go to school if I wanted to, but it was a choice that I had. Otherwise we unschooled, which is a word for basically not doing school. We didn't homeschool. We were able to stay home and play, and the idea was that we would have the space to be curious and kind of educate ourselves with the support of our parents in a broader community. It took some time to come into a deeper political awareness. But I did that at a rather young age, and I started working as a little kid on issues of environmental justice, animal rights, which is something a lot of kids get into, and started forging a political consciousness. In a way doing what I'm doing as an adult now, but just the little kid version of it.

This alternative perspective on the world was 100 per cent an inheritance from my mother, who was born in Toronto. But her mother, my grandmother, took the family in 1969 to Whitehorse in the Yukon, where my mom found her way to this amazing alternative school in Carcross in the Yukon. There were thousands of educational experiments popping up in the late 60s and 1970s where people were wrestling with creativity, intellectual autonomy, running schools democratically. So the kids at the schools had sat in on committees that helped raise funds, committees that helped clean the school, committees that helped build things and grow things. My mom was on the pedagogy committee — the philosophy of education committee. 

As an adult, I should say that I in no way am an un-nuanced booster of unschooling. In fact, I spend a lot of my time advocating for public investment in education. I really believe in education as a public good. I think there are things we need to learn in common to have a functional democracy. I've spent more years fighting for public investment in educational institutions than I did as an unschooler. But my unschooling ethos really infuses that. We should all have the support and the security to be curious, to learn things, to pursue knowledge, that I got this little window into as a kid.

On how 9/11 reshaped her thinking about democracy and security

9/11 is certainly a turning point for our global politics. And on the morning of 9/11, I took the subway to lower Manhattan. At the time I was 20 or 21 and working at a book publisher. I remember walking the streets. We could see the Twin Towers collapsing. We could see people running away in a state of panic. One of my strongest thoughts from early that morning was, "I'm so naive. I don't understand what's happening. I need to understand this." 

A New York City firefighter walks away from Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers.
A New York City firefighter walks away from Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Anthony Correia/Getty Images )

That was such a formative couple of years in so many ways. Some people probably remember the global justice movement, which had just been picking up steam with the famous battle in Seattle. That protest movement was an early casualty of the war on terror too. It was the sense that we can't protest, we just need to all get in line. Then of course the drums of war started to sound, and there was the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. There was all of this talk from political figures in the United States about bringing democracy to the Middle East by force as a kind of retribution, democracy as through the act of occupation, as an act of retribution. And a lot of talk of security, of this politics of security — "we have to sacrifice our civil liberties and the civil liberties" — mainly of Arab and Muslim people, to be safe in this dangerous world. 

I think you can see both my work on democracy, and in a way this meditation on security as responses to that period. What I saw is the corruption of these words. They were very tainted. But in my opinion, you can never find perfect, pure language. Because that's the great thing about language, it belongs to all of us, we can all use it. All you can do is wrestle over it, reclaim it, try to suffuse it with a different meaning. But I do think 20 years later, I'm still responding to that period. 

On Occupy Wall Street and merging action and theory

[A few] offshoots came out of Occupy [Wall Street] for me. One is actually organizing. I became part of this coalition that was being forged, that started organizing around indebtedness as a new form of political leverage, a new form of political identity. 

I think I do have this idea again of having kind of skin in the game. Who would I be to talk about democracy if I wasn't also trying to democratize our society at the same time? And I think maybe that is the unschooling ethos, which is you learn by doing and you don't only learn by books. And I love books. But you gotta get your hands dirty. 

Wealth concentration, as Occupy [Wall Street] helped point out, is out of control and it's only worse 10 years later. And that's because we do not have the political formations and political strength to counterbalance what is essentially the unchecked power of the billionaire class. I want to see change. But I believe that to engage in that action, to engage in that practice, we do need theories. We do need to know what it is we're talking about. We need to have some critical conception of the words we're using. What do we mean when we say the word democracy? To me, they just go together. Hopefully it makes me a better organizer and hopefully it makes me a better public intellectual as well.


*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now